Special counsel Robert Mueller has uncovered an aggressive campaign by Donald Trump to shut down or thwart investigations into Russian election interference, including an attempt to fire Mr. Mueller himself, during which the President’s own advisers often had to restrain him.
Mr. Mueller chose not to exonerate Mr. Trump of obstructing justice, but opted not to charge him because he said that indicting a sitting president would be too disruptive to government.
The special counsel also detailed a string of contacts between Mr. Trump’s campaign team, Russian operatives and purported Kremlin intermediaries – but determined that none of these discussions constituted collusion between the presidential campaign and Moscow’s efforts to tip the election to Mr. Trump.
The release Thursday of Mr. Mueller’s report – with redactions by Attorney-General William Barr – capped a nearly two-year investigation and painted a picture of a President who did not seem to understand or care about the limits of his own power. At one point, Mr. Trump even repeatedly pressed then-White House lawyer Don McGahn to arrange for the firing of Mr. Mueller.
The battle will now move to Congress, where Democrats are considering whether to launch impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
“The Mueller report shows disturbing evidence that President Trump obstructed justice,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday. “We have to get to the bottom of this and we’ll see what happens.”
On Friday, Mr. Nadler issued a subpoena demanding the entire unredacted report from the Department of Justice, as well as Mr. Mueller’s related files, by May 1. The Democrats also plan to have Mr. Mueller and Mr. Barr testify before Congress.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr depicted the outcome as a complete exoneration for the President, with no obstruction charges or evidence of Russian collusion. On Thursday, Mr. Trump told a White House event he was “having a good day.” But on Friday, he lashed out on Twitter, claiming without any evidence that some of the material in the report was “fabricated” and that Mr. Mueller’s team of FBI investigators was biased against him.
Mr. Trump appeared particularly angry that his own former aides, including Mr. McGahn, had taken detailed notes during White House conversations, which Mr. Mueller used to reconstruct key incidents.
“Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue. Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’” the President wrote from Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, where he is spending the Easter weekend.
Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue. Watch out for people that take so-called “notes,” when the notes never existed until needed. Because I never....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2019
...agreed to testify, it was not necessary for me to respond to statements made in the “Report” about me, some of which are total bullshit & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad). This was an Illegally Started Hoax that never should have happened, a...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2019
The report showed a disconnect between Mr. Trump’s confident public assertions that there was no co-ordination with the Kremlin and internal chaos at any attempt to investigate this question.
First, Mr. Mueller wrote, Mr. Trump fired FBI director James Comey after Mr. Comey failed to publicly say Mr. Trump was not under investigation. Then, when Mr. Mueller took over the investigation, Mr. Trump complained to aides in the Oval Office: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked,” according to notes taken by an administration staffer and later provided to Mr. Mueller.
On one occasion, Mr. Trump called Mr. McGahn at home on the weekend and repeatedly asked him to get Mr. Mueller fired. Mr. Trump also tried to get his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to push then-attorney-general Jeff Sessions to limit Mr. Mueller’s investigation only to future election interference.
Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened to fire Mr. Sessions for failing to keep control of Mr. Mueller’s probe; for a time Mr. Sessions carried a copy of his resignation with him whenever he saw Mr. Trump just in case he had to step down.
Mr. Mueller also accuses Mr. Trump of trying to limit the evidence that would reach investigators. The President’s lawyers removed information about a planned Trump hotel in Moscow from a statement to Congress by the President’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and discussed the possibility of Mr. Cohen receiving a presidential pardon if he did not co-operate with the investigations.
Mr. Mueller, however, decided not to indict Mr. Trump for obstruction of justice because he felt that any public accusation of criminal wrongdoing against a sitting president “would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern.” He suggested it is up to Congress to decide what to do, and that he did not want to “pre-empt constitutional processes,” such as impeachment.
The special counsel said that, if he were sure Mr. Trump were innocent, he would have cleared him – and was choosing not to.
“If we had confidence … that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” he wrote. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Mr. Mueller has come under criticism for not determining whether the President had obstructed justice.
But analysts said it was reasonable for Mr. Mueller to avoid making such a finding, given the Justice Department’s policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted.
Some of Mr. Trump’s actions, such as firing Mr. Comey could be considered part of his executive authority. Special-counsel investigators also faced a difficult challenge in determining Mr. Trump’s motives, given he declined to sit for an interview. "In a lot of these cases, [Mr. Trump] had at least a plausible claim that he had public-minded interests behind his actions – that he wanted to remove a cloud over his administration, that he wanted the nation to move forward,” said Princeton University politics professor Keith Whittington.
However, the Mueller report could create new political headaches for Mr. Trump.
Congressional Democrats will find plenty to fuel new investigations into the President. Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to oppose such efforts and point to Mr. Barr’s willingness to share a largely unredacted copy of the 448-page report with Congressional leaders. “From a political perspective, this redacted report is quite literally a Rorschach test,” said University of Southern California political scientist Jeb Barnes.
Mr. Mueller’s report also potentially opens the door for a future prosecution of Mr. Trump once he leaves office, though federal prosecutors will have to weigh the political costs of opening a criminal case against a former president and any prosecution would likely face lengthy legal battles.
“It’s clear that they’re saying that there was attempted obstruction of justice here, but they can’t recommend prosecution given the Department of Justice rules,” said Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at The George Washington University, in D.C. “But they also can’t exonerate the President, which suggests that if the President were no longer President, this evidence could be used in the future.”
Mr. Mueller’s report also shed new light on several contacts between Mr. Trump’s circle and Russian operatives, at a time when Russia was orchestrating a massive campaign largely over social media to help Mr. Trump win.
The President’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, shared polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian associate believed to have connections to a Kremlin spy agency. The pair also discussed having Mr. Trump approve a “peace plan” for Ukraine that would allow Russia to take control of the eastern part of that country.
Mr. Cohen tried to enlist the Kremlin’s help getting a Trump Tower Moscow built. And he confirmed that Donald Trump Jr. set up the Trump Tower meeting in hopes of receiving dirt on the Democrats from a Kremlin-connected lawyer, though none was provided.